THE ACTOR IN THE FIERY PIT OF HELL (RACE REPORT: COMOX VALLEY RV HALF MARATHON)
Being a trained actor has its advantages on the run.
That’s the best explanation that I have for it anyway.
When I’m out on the run course, it’s the closest thing to being onstage; the cheering crowd, the high energy and deep desire of the other runners, and, most of all, I do exactly what I rehearsed.
As an actor, you rehearse scenes over and over until they are second nature, until your mind goes blank onstage and your body takes over. You don’t think; you just feel. Opening night is simply showing the audience what you have created. It’s like a dance, where every second is crafted, and it’s unlike improv, where you are continually thinking and making shit up as you go. Improv is much harder.
I was never very good at improv.
But as a dancer, gymnast, and actor, I learned how to repeat a sequence over and over until my brain turned off.
Unlike the swim, where I am alone in tumultuous and ever-changing waves, and the bike, where long stretches of quiet roads, and risk of a crash, means that the mind must always be alert, in the run I can simply repeat what I rehearsed. I can feed off the energy of the crowd. I can empty my mind.
As a rule, swim practices are my favorite, but the run is the most fun part of the race for me. It’s not usually the fastest part, but typically it’s the only part where I can actually get comfortable and enjoy myself.
Yesterday’s run was a fiery pit of hell.
I think it’s safe to say that I am currently the fittest I’ve ever been. I’m a pound below my lightest weight as a high school gymnast, and I’m consistently seeing my best swim, bike, and run outputs. This has come through a combination of months of hard work and solid coaching by someone who consistently pushes me to be stronger (thank you, Clint Lien!).
This race was a test of my fitness: how was I doing after six months of solid, quality, training?
Last October, I ran a 1:56:44 Half Marathon: a PB that came after 4 months of slow, but focused, training that followed a two year period of recovery after my surgery
when I had no real fitness. That race in October was also a test: could I actually get back into triathlon after years away? I did, and here I was.
Now, I have a new coach, a new vision for my season, and a new test of my fitness.
Going into yesterday’s half marathon, I knew that, barring broken limbs, I would again PB my half marathon. I’ve been running 20+ km on Sundays consistently since January, and all I had to do was repeat the pace I’d been doing in practice. I had been working on perfecting my nutrition (thank you, Stacy Sims!) and was confident in that. The weather was predicted to be ideal. I was super excited going into the race.
In the days leading up to it, my left foot, which has a permanent avulsion fracture of the fifth metatarsal, had started to bother me. My main running shoes were nearing the end of the life (615 km) so I replaced them with a new, identical pair, hoping that would take care of the issue.
I did a short run the day before and it felt fine.
The morning of the race, I feel good. I eat exactly what I’d rehearsed, and have a super fun drive up to Comox with a teammate (thank you, Val!). Val has run the race 7 of 8 times and has a quiet, positive, energy that is ideal for someone going into a race for the first time.
We arrive two hours before the start, so we have plenty of time to top up nutrition, warm up, and mentally prepare.
Hitting the start line, I am ready to do exactly what I’d rehearsed.
I know the exact pace I was aiming for (4:40); I have a 59 minute playlist of songs that I’d selected specifically for this race, and rehearsed with for the past two weeks; I am feeling physically strong.
The gun goes off, and I settle in.
The first four kilometers feel wonderful.
I am comfortably holding 4:30s; my body feels good; I smile and enjoy the energy given off by the crowds of people and the other runners.
The shoulders of the course are filled with cheering spectators waving signs, ringing cowbells, and calling out words of encouragement (“Run, Random Stranger, Run!”).
One of my training partners is out on her bike, riding up and down the course, calling out positive words.
The atmosphere is electric.
As a triathlete, I am keenly aware that even at my fastest, I am nowhere near the caliber of the runner-runners that race this event. And I have no desire to try to beat them.
My goal is to hold my own pace, period.
And that is happening.
Until the kilometer 4 aid station, when I begin to notice an ache in my left foot.
I take in the sensation, recognize it as my old injury acting up, and keep running.
But by kilometer 7, the pain is blinding, and I can think of nothing else. My pace has noticeably slowed, and I am beginning to be passed by other runners. The top of my foot feels like it is being smashed with a hammer on every lift, and with each strike, the sole is being pierced with knives.
I begin to watch for support vehicles, and realize that at any moment, I can choose to stop.
And no one will care.
Everyone is so focused on their own race that they don’t pay attention to what anyone else is doing.
I remember what my coach has told me: quitting becomes a habit.
But, I rationalize, I can barely run. My foot is broken. And I’m in so much pain I have no peripheral vision. None.
I can’t hear the crowd; I can’t see other runners; I can sense nothing but the blinding pain emanating from my foot.
I pull over into the shoulder and untie my shoes.
“Ok,” I think “I will try this once. If I loosen my shoes, maybe that will make the pain bearable.” If it doesn’t, I know that there is no way I am going to limp along another 14 kilometers.
There is an aid station at kilometer 8. So, I say aloud, “I will try. And then if I decide to stop, there will be volunteers to help.”
My breath is coming in short gasps, and my hands are shaking. It takes several tries, and several minutes, but I adjust my socks and re-tie both shoes for good measure.
So far, so good.
I hit the kilometer 8 aid station, the last before the turn around that marks the halfway point.
My foot is aching and my pace is slow, but I take in some water and vow to keep going.
“I will finish this race, or be hauled off on a stretcher.”
The notes that my coach had put into my log included the words:
“I want you to be able to go to a dark place on Sunday!”
It doesn’t get much darker than the fiery pits of hell.
Well. Maybe the fire lights the way.
Kilometer 9. Kilometer 10.
I’m limping along at a 4:45 pace, but I’m moving.
My form is shot to shit.
I keep hitting repeat on “We Will Rock You” on my iPod.
My shoelaces, poorly tied by my shaking hands, flap and hit the top of my shoe with each step.
Tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap.
Kilometer 11. Kilometer 12.
I stop to drink some water, and fill my bottle. By this time, I know that I am going to finish, but also, I know that it will be ugly. I take in some calcium to try to fend off cramping.
Cramping, I laugh.
I would kill for the only problem to be a side stitch right now.
My shoes come untied and I pull over again, this time double-knotting the shoes and tucking in the ends.
By now, I know that there is no way I will finish with my goal pace of 4:40. But I also know that I am still on my way to a PB. And, fuck it, I’m finishing this damn race.
I remember that I chose to be here. I don’t know why I put myself through this torture.
Why, exactly? Of all the things I could choose to do on a Sunday, why did I choose to endure brutal agony?
This should be uncomfortable, I remind myself.
I slow to a walk at the last aid station. More water. Fill my bottle again.
Usually I wouldn’t bother with only 4 kilometers to go. But my brain needs some sense of relief, if only for 30 seconds.
At this point, one minute slower makes no difference if it means I get to the finish line.
I can sense my fellow runners deflating.
My pace isn’t increasing, but I begin to pass them.
I speak to each one as I do.
“Keep going.” “You’ve got this.” “Nice work!”
Focusing on encouraging the others takes my mind off my own pain.
3 kilometers to go.
Just 15 more minutes.
You can do anything for 15 minutes.
The crowds grow bigger, and the course marshals more plentiful, as we near town.
A woman I don’t know sees my name on my race bib and yells “Keep going, Karmen!”
Damn it, if this random person cares enough to stand on the side of the road and yell at random strangers, I can find the will to care too.
I focus on picking up my cadence.
I can see the bridge that marks the town limit. My body is on auto-pilot; my brain is detached.
Forget peripheral vision; I may as well be running with my eyes closed.
But hours of treadmill running have taught me that I can run without seeing; I can run without thinking. I focus on one spot on the horizon and nothing else.
As I cross the bridge, I can hear the familiar beat fade up in my ears.
“Boom boom clap. Boom boom clap.”
Left right left. Right left right.
“…shouting in the street, gonna take on the world someday…”
Muscle memory has taken over. I can see the finish line, but my brain is already on the other side, ordering my feet to continue.
I see the clock ticking as I approach. 1:41:20, :21, :22.
My feet cross the line.
I cannot order them to move another step.
I remove my shoes, to great relief.
I regret nothing, except that I couldn’t enjoy this race.
Nothing about it was fun.
But I learn. I learn that I can endure more pain than I ever imagined.
I learn that hours and hours of repetition in practice teach the body to keep moving, long after it wants to give up.
I learn that races are not won on race day. Just like great performances are made in the rehearsal hall, races are won in the day after day, week after week, consistent training. Training the body, so that the mind can turn off.
I ran 1:41:33, 15 minutes faster than my PB from October.
And, next time, I will run faster.